Russian troops
Photo: AP

Russia expands Georgia blitz, deploys ships

Russia battles Georgian forces on land and sea despite a Georgian ceasefire offer, its claim to be withdrawing from separatist province of South Ossetia. Moscow claims to have sunk Georgian boat trying to attack its vessels in Black Sea

Russia and Georgia clashed on land and at sea Sunday, despite a Georgian ceasefire offer and its claim to be withdrawing from the separatist province of South Ossetia, officials from both countries said.


Georgian officials said Russian planes bombed an area near the Georgian capital's airport and Russian tanks moved from South Ossetia into Georgian territory, heading toward a strategic city before being turned back.


Russian jets hit communications facilities just west of Tbilisi early Monday and also targeted the Black Sea port of Poti, said Georgia's Interior Ministry spokesman, Shota Utiashvili. He said that Russian raids inflicted no casualties.


A Russian general said Georgian forces directed heavy fire at positions around Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, early Monday, even though Georgia had claimed to be withdrawing from the shattered city and called for a cease-fire.


"Active fighting has been going on in several zones," the Interfax news agency quoted Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov as saying. He is commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent that has been in South Ossetia since 1992.


Russia also claimed to have sunk a Georgian boat that tried to attack Russian vessels in the Black Sea.


Russia appears determined to subdue diminutive, US-backed Georgia despite international condemnation. Russia ignored a wave of calls to observe Georgia's ceasefire, saying it must first be assured that Georgian troops had indeed pulled back from South Ossetia.


President Bush on Monday sharply criticized Moscow's harsh military crackdown, saying the violence is unacceptable and Russia's response is disproportionate.


Bush, in an interview with NBC Sports, said, "I've expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn the bombing outside of South Ossetia." He said he did so directly to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and by phone to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

Russian armored vehicle in Abkhazia (Photo: AP) 


International envoys were trying to end the conflict before it spreads throughout the Caucasus, a region plagued by ethnic tensions. But it was unclear what inducements or pressure the envoys could bring to bear, or to what extent either side was truly sensitive to world opinion.


Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said one of the Russian raids on the airport area came a half hour before the arrival of the foreign ministers of France and Finland.


Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Temur Yakobashvili said Russian tanks tried to cross from South Ossetia into the territory of Georgia proper, but were turned back by Georgian forces. He said the tanks apparently were trying to approach Gori, but did not fire on the city of about 50,000, which sits on Georgia's only significant east-west highway.


An Associated Press photographer in Gori said early Monday that the city appeared quiet.


Russia also sent naval vessels to patrol off Georgia's Black Sea coast, but denied Sunday that the move was aimed at establishing a blockade.


The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman as saying that Georgian missile boats twice tried to attack Russian ships, which fired back and sank one of the Georgian vessels.


South Ossetia broke away from Georgian control in 1992. Russia granted passports to most of its residents and the region's separatist leaders sought to absorb the region into Russia.


Georgia, whose troops have been trained by American soldiers, began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia overnight Friday, launching heavy rocket and artillery fire and air strikes that pounded the regional capital Tskhinvali. Georgia says it was responding to attacks by separatists.


In response, Russia launched massive artillery shelling and air attacks on Georgian troops.


2,000 killed since Friday

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said more than 2,000 people had been killed in South Ossetia since Friday, most of them Ossetians with Russian passports. The figures could not be independently confirmed.


The respected Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy reported that two journalists were killed by South Ossetian separatists, citing a correspondent of Russian Newsweek magazine.


Thousands of civilians have fled South Ossetia — many seeking shelter in the Russian province of North Ossetia.


"The Georgians burned all of our homes," said one elderly woman, as she sat on a bench under a tree with three other white-haired survivors of the fighting.


She seemed confused by the conflict. "The Georgians say it is their land," she said. "Where is our land, then? We don't know."


The scope of Russia's military response has the Bush administration deeply worried.


The US military began flying 2,000 Georgian troops home from Iraq after Georgia recalled them, even while calling for a truce.


The UN Security Council met for the fourth time in four days Sunday, with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad accusing Moscow of seeking "regime change" in Georgia and resisting attempts to make peace. Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Russians don't use the expression, but acknowledged there were occasions when elected leaders "become an obstacle."


Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s.


Both separatist provinces have close ties with Moscow, while Georgia has deeply angered Russia by wanting to join NATO.


Russian jets raided several Georgian air bases Saturday and bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti, which has a sizable oil shipment facility. The Russian warplanes also struck near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline which carries Caspian crude to the West.


Russian officials said they were targeting Georgian communications and lines of supply. But a Russian raid Saturday on Gori near South Ossetia, which apparently targeted a military base on the town's outskirts, also killed many civilians.


Tskhinvali residents who survived the Georgian bombardment overnight Friday by hiding in basements and later fled the city estimated that hundreds of civilians had died.


NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Russia violated Georgia's territorial integrity in South Ossetia and employed a "disproportionate use of force."


Adding to Georgia's woes, Russian-supported separatists in Abkhazia launched air and artillery strikes on Georgian troops to drive them out of a small part of the province they control.


Abkhazia's separatist government called out the army and reservists on Sunday and declared it would push Georgian forces out of the northern part of the Kodori Gorge, the only area of Abkhazia still under Georgian control.


Separatist Abkhazia forces also were concentrating on the border near Georgia's Zugdidi region.


פרסום ראשון: 08.11.08, 07:24
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